CALDWELL -- A judge resentenced the woman convicted of a brutal attack in 2000. Sarah Pearce was convicted of six felonies in 2003, including aiding and abetting the attempted murder of Linda LeBrane in 2000. Three men were also convicted in the crime.
Pearce was previously sentenced to 15 years to life in prison, but Judge Juneal Kerrick re-sentenced Pearce Friday after a deal between attorneys. Pearce was released and is now serving five years on probation. The guilty verdicts still stand, and she has waived rights to most types of appeals.
Pearce last appeared in court in February when the state discussed a possible settlement offer to Pearce. No details were given at that time, other than the discussions would not be about guilt or innocence, only sentencing.
Judge: 'There are a lot of people interested in this case'
Judge Kerrick detailed the case history, including Pearce's 2004 sentencing and subsequent appeals upheld by the courts. In 2008, Pearce filed for post-conviction relief and again in 2011. Pearce has always maintained her innocence, saying she was in no way involved with LeBrane's attack.
The judge said it's unusual for someone to get a new hearing or trial as Pearce was moving toward. She said at the heart of consideration for a new sentencing were issues like witnesses now unsure of their testimony a decade ago and issues with the lineup Pearce was picked from.
"Any number of these issues could justify a new trial if they were found to be true. We had not had an evidentiary hearing, so there were no findings of the court. But there were sufficient issues on both sides, so there was an interest in coming to a resolution that probably was not perfect for either side. And that's my understanding of what's brought us here today," Kerrick said.
Victim in court: 'Sarah was the ringleader'
Victim Linda LeBrane spoke to the court, reading from statement she'd prepared. She detailed the night of June 15, 2000 when she was attacked saying she was "frozen with terror" as she was beaten and stabbed, and ultimately left for dead in a beet field on the side of the interstate. LeBrane reaffirmed her confidence that Pearce was correctly identified years ago.
"Sarah was the ringleader yelling at the men, telling them to kill me," LeBrane said. "She showed me no mercy."
LeBrane said she's suffered tremendously over the years: "The past 14 years have been devastating to me in so many ways... I have lost my ability to work. I have post traumatic stress."
LeBrane said being in the room with Pearce was "terrifying" but also had a direct message to Pearce in court: "Sarah Pearce, I forgive you. I must, or I will remain your victim forever. I will not be left dying in a beet field again."
Pearce: 'This is a tragic misidentification'
After LeBrane's statement, Pearce's attorneys encouraged her to address the court.
Pearce began: "What I want with my future is to be successful. Not just with my probation but with my life. I want to be something other than this. I look forward to reuniting with my family and moving forward with our lives."
After she spoke of her hopes for the future, Pearce once again said she is innocent.
"I need to say clearly: This is a tragic misidentification. I did not commit this crime, but all the same, I was punished for it," Pearce said. "I will try to walk away from this taking more from it, than it has taken from me."
Judge: 'This case is such a difficult case'
Judge Kerrick had tears in her eyes as she spoke to LeBrane, Pearce and the attorneys. She said there were so many issues concerning identification, that she understood the compromise. She said the system of justice is not perfect.
"Ms. Pearce, if you in fact did not commit these crimes, one day [in prison] was too many. One day was too many if you didn't do that," Kerrick said.
Kerrick stood by her initial sentencing in 2004, but said the new factors made sense for why the day came to reconsider. She particularly mentioned witnesses who'd since questioned their identification of Pearce years ago.
"I stand by what I knew then, and what the female attacker did. That sentence, the sentence on those charges was entirely appropriate. But many years later, given what has come out with these witnesses ... given all the things that have been raised, if you look at it in the totality, I think it certainly supports the compromise," Kerrick said.
Looking ahead, Kerrick said she hopes other people will see this story and come forward if they know things about criminal cases. She says some issues could have been resolved earlier in this instance.
"There's been a huge loss on both sides because of this case. We just hope that the people in other cases who have information, or the people who are investigating, or people we put the responsibilities on, come forward and help people make the right decisions, so there is justice," Kerrick said.
Released from prison after 11 years
Kerrick resentenced Pearce by giving her a new prison sentence equivalent to the more than 11 years Pearce had served in an eastern Idaho prison. She then allowed Pearce five years of probation.
Pearce was released from the Canyon County Jail, where she was held for court, about an hour after resentencing. She met with her mother and other family, as well as the Idaho Innocence Project, which aided her in her case.
"It's over," Pearce's mother, Anita Brown, said. "I want to say, one of the most important things I want to do is thank God. Without him, this couldn't have happened. I tell everybody that I started this with a mustard seed of faith and a promise of God, and I've stayed that course for 11 years. And in the darkest of moments, I stayed with the promise of God."
Pearce had trouble putting her emotions into words, but said her mother gave her the strength to continue working for her freedom. Her plans now involve helping others who she says may be in a similar situation.
"One of my main things is I want to help fight for the wrongfully incarcerated. This experience instilled a passion in me," Pearce said. "That can give everything I've been through a reason and a purpose. Instead of walking away and forgetting what's happened to me, I want to pay it forward."
LeBrane: 'I felt the judge was entirely fair to both of us'
LeBrane has said this process has taught her the difference between mercy and justice. She says she feels the judge was fair and explained her reasoning to both women. Most importantly, she felt the judge didn't lessen what LeBrane had been through.
She said being in the courtroom was terrifying: "I was in a courtroom of hostile people. Those were all her family and friends."
LeBrane's biggest questions are why the court took the case again years later, and she criticized the Idaho Innocence Project in this particular case.
"My biggest question is why they... create just little doubts here and there when everything else was already proven and convicted. I don't understand," LeBrane said. "I understand they've done marvelous work in releasing non-guilty people, but today, a guilty person got released."
Canyon County Prosecutor's Statement
"In 2000, Linda LeBrane was brutally beaten by several persons, including Sarah Pearce, and left for dead. One of Mrs. LeBrane's attackers pled and agreed to testify on behalf of the State, and the three other perpetrators were found guilty after trial by jury for their respective roles in this horrific crime, and sentenced under law to lengthy terms of incarceration in prison.
Demonstrating the same courage and will to live that allowed her to survive the attack, Mrs. LeBrane was able to put the pieces of her life back together - a life, according to a jury, that Ken Wurdemann, John Wurdemann, Jeremy Sanchez, and Sarah Pearce, then only a teenager, had senselessly attempted to violently shatter. Horrifically, these persons were complete strangers to Mrs. LeBrane, who was simply passing through our County. While the impact of such a heinous crime on its victim, and on our community's sense of safety and security, cannot be overstated, it should also be noted that it is Mrs. LeBrane's strength and dignity, and our community's sense of justice, that made today's hearing - and Ms. Pearce's opportunity to herself now gather a life from the rubble left of that terrible day - possible.
In my view, the criminal justice system of a given community should reflect the values and aspirations its members share. In Canyon County, we value the protection and empowerment of persons victimized by crime, and we aspire to do right -- even by those who have wronged us. Today, informed by the courage of Linda LeBrane and the strength of our community, we balance our very human sense of outrage at those who do violence to the people and places we love, and have sworn to protect, with our commitment to reason and compassion. Today we validate Mrs. LeBrane's suffering, and celebrate both her perseverance and our community's faith in justice.
Today's hearing closes the book on the question of Sarah Pearce's guilt - which has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt and to the satisfaction of a jury of her peers. More importantly, it reaffirms that the only truly innocent person in this sad story of senseless violence is Linda LeBrane."
Idaho Innocence Project and attorneys Statement
After nearly twelve years of incarceration, Sarah Pearce's quest for freedom ended today when she was granted post-conviction relief in the District Court of Idaho's Third Judicial District. Sarah (31) was convicted of six felonies in 2003, including aiding and abetting the 2000 attempted murder of Linda LeBrane. She was sentenced to a fifteen year determinate period of incarceration with an indeterminate life sentence. Sarah has always steadfastly maintained her innocence.
The Idaho Innocence Project (IIP) and her attorneys have been working to free Sarah since 2007. A petition for post-conviction relief was filed in 2008 after IIP staff and volunteers obtained affidavits from several trial witnesses suggesting that another suspect, not Sarah, was LeBrane's female attacker. Sarah's petition was later amended to claim that her constitutional rights were violated when it was discovered that Canyon County law enforcement officers withheld a rescored polygraph examination of the very same female suspect.
Sarah appeared today in the same Canyon County courtroom where she was originally convicted and sentenced. She was accompanied by her attorneys-Scott Fouser (Fouser Law Offices, P.A.), Jared Hoskins (IIP), and Steven B. Andersen (Andersen Banducci, PLLC)-her family, several IIP representatives and volunteers who have assisted with the case (Dr. Greg Hampikian, Rick Visser, Debbie Thompson, Ginny Hatch, Leon Rothstein, Joy Garrison, and Mikel Hautzinger), and other supporters.
After over five years of litigation, post-conviction relief was granted in the form of Sarah being resentenced to time served. Sarah looks forward to spending time with her family, jogging, attending school, and volunteering for the IIP. The IIP has had its funding drastically cut after it was not awarded a competitive Department of Justice grant this year but continues to offer support to attorneys litigating cases of actual and demonstrable innocence.
-Scott Fouser, Jared Hoskins & Steven B. Andersen, on behalf of Sarah Pearce